Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare

Samuel Johnson’s Preface to 'The Plays of William Shakespeare’ is a classical document of literary criticism. It is proof enough of the qualities of lucidity, energy and individuality on the part of Johnson, who has presented before us an impartial and objective judgment of Shakespeare. He has excelled his guru, Dryden in superbly defending the tragi-comedy.
In the Preface, Johnson has enumerated the faults of Shakespeare about which Raleigh writes, “The detailed analysis of the faults is a fine piece of criticism and has never been seriously challenged.”
The first thing that needs to be observed is why the obscurities have crept into the writings of Shakespeare. The reasons are – careless manner of publication; use of colloquial English; use of many allusions, references etc. to topical events and personalities; rapid flow of ideas that often hurries him to move to the second thought before the first one is fully elaborated. Johnson in writing this Preface has performed the service to Shakespeare in making obscurities and confusing clearly understandable.
The faults of Shakespeare as elaborated by Johnson are:
• There is a lack of propriety as the jests are gross and the pleasantries licentious.

• Shakespeare sacrifices virtue to convenience. He makes no just distribution of good and evil.

• The tragi-comedies (neither comedies nor tragedies) are not in accordance with the rules. Moreover, some plots are loosely constructed and have improbable endings.

• Then there is lack of poetic justice especially in tragedies. The major figures suffer more that they deserve – the punishment inflicted on them is disproportionate to their sins.

• There are instances of Shakespeare’s violation of chronology (called anachronisms).

• As regards the faults in tragedies, Johnson was of the opinion that the display of passion which urgency forces out are for the most part striking and energetic but when he tries his own inventions the result is humour, meanness and obscurity.

• The fault in comedies is that Shakespeare is commonly gross in his jests. Neither his gentleman nor ladies possess any delicacy. They are not sufficiently distinguished from Shakespeare’s clowns by the possession of refined manners.

• Dr. Johnson is of the opinion, “In narration he affects disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few.”

• Shakespeare has also been blamed by Johnson for not following the unities of time and place. At this point, Johnson also presents his defense of Shakespeare for failing to observe the unities. “The unities of time and place are always to be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction”, says Johnson, although unity of action must be maintained. Johnson actually in refuting the unities of time and place gives up his neo-classical garb and becomes a liberal critic in this regard. He justifies this by saying that the audience knows that it is only a stage and the players are mere actors and not for a moment do they believe what they are seeing is literally true. Even if they do for a moment they can easily imagine a little more – they can imagine the stage as different places.

Talking of his historical approach to literature Johnson pointed out the limitation under which Shakespeare worked, saying that Shakespeare wrote for uncultured audience and therefore his plays are full of exciting incidents and shows. His (Shakespeare’s) plots borrowed from novels – he chose the most popular, read by many. Johnson was of the view that literature is not written according to a fixed pattern but is conditioned by a writer’s age and environment.

Note: The opinions expressed here are only as expressed in Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare. I myself am a great admirer of Shakespeare's works. But we have to be objective sometimes for being true to the genre of literary criticism and take into consideration all the aspects.


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Luigi | Brochure Printing said...

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Anonymous said...

thanks,it helped me in understandin my chaptr better.

Anonymous said...

comprehensible thinking....thnks a lot

Anonymous said...

shakespeare wrote,
johnson analysed,
you summarised,
now i am going to make it a packed answer in my exam paper,to get a pg.


Saurav Chakravarty said...

As far as the three unities are concerned, Aristotle in his 'Poetics' laid a stress on the unity of action and just makes a remark on the unity of time, but he never mentions the unity of place. The latter was mainly a result of the works of the french neo-classical critics of the 17th century.

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